Three unexpected life skills I gained when I learned to shoot

by Sarah Jane Jacob
photos by Fiona Walsh, Gumboots Photography

When I decided, in my mid-30s, that I wanted to learn how to shoot, I had no idea how much it would change my life. The only firearm I had even seen up to that point was the shotgun mounted high up on the wall of my father’s office when I was a child – he had given up shooting before I was born and had never spoken of it.

I never dreamed that shooting would soon become an all-consuming recreation for me and that it would enrich my life in some unexpected ways. In particular, there are three surprising lessons I learned while I was putting in range time. Maybe you can identify with some of them too.

Body awareness
“CEASE FIRE! Okay, do you know why you missed the target that time?” said the instructor.

“Erm… no,” I said.

“You’re jerking the trigger – the gun pulled down and to the side when you let off that shot.”

“Oh… Really? It doesn’t feel like I’m doing that!”

This is the sort of conversation that I often had with my instructors as a novice shooter (and if I’m honest, on many occasions since) and similar conversations are being had on shooting ranges across the world with instructors and their pupils, every single day.

One thing that I learned quickly when I took up shooting is that it doesn’t need much to fluff a shot. Even the smallest movement – a flinch, a jerk of the finger, a slight change in stance or grip – can make the difference between hitting the target and missing it.

My teachers drummed in to me that the key to shooting accurately is consistency. Once you learn what it takes to hit your target, you must then learn how to replicate that behaviour, again and again. It is crucial to be aware of each tiny movement you make that affects your aim and engage in ‘perfect practice.’ The idea is that eventually muscle memory will take over and you won’t need to think so much about what your body needs to do in order to hit the mark – as long as you learn to do it right from the beginning. Otherwise bad technique will become a bad habit.

I didn’t realise how far I’d come with this until one day when I offered to lend my target pistol to a new shooting friend for a silhouette match. My friend was keen to have a go, but was having trouble finding a comfortable, stable shooting position. She asked me to demonstrate how I did it, once more. As I sunk into my usual shooting position and aimed my pistol, I realised that the correct position felt like the proverbial ‘comfortable old shoe.’ I knew that I was in the right position, because it just felt right. I also recalled that it wasn’t so long ago that I was complaining to my mentor about how awkward it felt to shoot from that position – and that there were just too many things to focus on each time I pressed the trigger in order to shoot well. But there is no avoiding it – it is important to have excellent body awareness in order to develop good habits.

Mental focus
I’ll admit it – for most of my life, I haven’t been known for my ability to remain focused for long periods. As a child, I always found it a chore to sit down and practise the piano on a daily basis, despite possessing a natural musical talent. I preferred to spend my free time off exploring in the bush with my dog. This is not to say that I’ve never worked hard, or practised self-discipline, but let’s just say that I have a low threshold of boredom and I’m easily distracted. The type of activities I was always drawn to were freestyle adventure sports such as rock climbing, white-water rafting and scuba diving. Precision sports that involved intense concentration, self-control and endless repetition? Not so much. So learning to shoot was a whole new ball game for me.

They say that your body is your subconscious mind – meaning that your mental state is intrinsically linked to your physical state. I believe that this is true and it becomes apparent to me when I am shooting, especially in disciplines where accuracy is the main objective.

When I am feeling stressed, anxious or upset, I find it difficult to shoot well. Not only is it harder to concentrate on the task at hand, but my emotions also create physical changes in my body – increased heart rate, shallow breathing and tension in my muscles – that only make things worse. This is also true if I’m feeling excited. Sometimes I become so keyed up when I’ve knocked down nine targets in a row, that my heart rate skyrockets and I end up missing the 10th. This is commonly referred to at my club as ‘choking’!

To shoot well, regardless of how you are feeling, requires you to block out all those intrusive thoughts and emotions, to quieten your body and give 100 per cent of your attention to preparing for the shot. This is definitely something I struggle with at times, but my desire to improve my shooting has meant that I now have a vested interest in working on my mental discipline. I have seen a vast improvement in my ability to focus since I started shooting and I’ve noticed the flow-on effects in other areas of my life – in everything from my pilates classes to my university studies in journalism.

There’s no getting away from it – firearm ownership can be a controversial issue. No matter what your reason, however legitimate, for owning a gun, there will always be people who look at you differently after they learn this about you.

One of my more unpleasant memories is of a conversation I once had with someone whom I considered a dear friend, who lives interstate. When he asked what I’d been up to, I excitedly told him that I had taken up target shooting. My friend’s reaction was completely unexpected. He expressed his dismay and disapproval in no uncertain terms, even going so far as to launch what felt like a personal attack on my character. I was shocked and shaken – was I not still the same person I was before? I was amazed that someone I’d known for many years could seemingly change their opinion of me so swiftly.

Notwithstanding that upsetting experience, I do believe that everyone has a right to their opinions. I always try to bear in mind that each person has their own individual world view, which is based on their personal experiences and myriad influences in their life. I understand that there are many reasons why a person might dislike firearms and it is their prerogative to do so. If someone expresses a distaste for guns and shooting, I do not argue or try to change their mind. I simply accept their point of view and treat them with the same respect and courtesy that I hope they, in turn, will treat me. Nowadays, I try not to take it too personally when someone reacts negatively after I tell them what I got up to on the weekend.

Thankfully, my friend’s reaction was the exception, not the rule, when I tell people I’m a shooter. More often than not, I find that people are curious about shooting and are full of questions. I always take their interest as an opportunity to demonstrate that licensed firearm owners are decent, law-abiding citizens who take the responsibility of owning guns very seriously and always make safety their highest priority.

For me, becoming a member of the shooting community has been an incredible journey. I have learned a great deal about myself and about others. I believe it has made me a more responsible and mindful person and helped me develop greater situational awareness.

Most of all, I love the way that shooting brings together people from all walks of life and how willingly shooters share their knowledge and their passion. It inspires me to carry it forward to the next generation. There are truly many life lessons to be learned from a day at the range!

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